In the kitchen, Anita Nipple sang Happy Birthday on the phone to her new best friend, Luanne. She gave Mark the thumbs up — she’d get this call over while he watched Jeopardy. Mark counted faces during commercials. Ten faces average, each commercial break. Some days there were nine faces, those days seemed less lucky.
The tent? Sure, I don’t mind bringing ours, it’s just soooo old and they make them SO much better now.
Mark reclined on the leather sofa, he liked to stretch out. Glad it was Friday because he looked forward to sleeping-in with Anita on the weekends. The kids were no longer around, Mark and Anita could wake up and read or bring coffee back to bed and make love for a bit... or not. Lately not.
Anita and Luanne were going camping Sunday to celebrate both of them turning fifty. Mark had a small party for Anita the weekend before. A quiet backyard celebration with neighbors and kids and dogs. He thought Anita liked it, she seemed not at all disappointed by the little birthday party — how much like all the other backyard parties. Mark made her a cake. It was superb, they both agreed.
Anita and Luanne’s birthdays were just five days apart. Anita was buzzing when she found out. Mark remembers when she rushed home to tell him that not only had she made an incredible friend and there were so many interests in common — they were exactly the same age. X. had no kids, but that was the only difference, a minor thing.
“Luanne is a talented sculptor and I’m nothing,” she said when she drank sometimes.
Mark hated it when she put herself down, a familiar rant.
Mark said stuff like, “You’re a mother, a companion, an animal lover, a traveler, a shower singer!”
Anita had Luanne on speaker now, stacking dishes.
Okay, I’ll bring four bars of dark, seventy percent.
Luanne really cracked Anita up. She bent over giggling, palming the knees of her jeans. Mark could almost picture his wife in a loft studio wearing a smock with a large blank canvas in front of her, mixing colors. Her laugh was a creative person’s laugh. Maybe Anita would rediscover herself.
Mark had never met Luanne — and he imagined her freckled face, average height, tomboyish...
He threw fished for a cat toy between the pillows of the sofa and threw it to the cat.
Right, you bring the coffee bags... Anita said.
Jeopardy was over and they were still talking. Mark sometimes wished he had more time out, on the weekend when not at the office he tended to stay home and relax.
What? Anita talking lower, her nose pointing to the floor, her foot scuffing a linoleum-stuck food clump. Cupping the phone under her neck she whispered, Tell him to get a goddamn life. Mark wondered why Anita was whispering since she was whispering so loudly. Nearly hissing.
He’s jealous, that’s all. Guilting you.
The cat was mewling. Mark picked her up and cradled her in a baby way. He blew on her tortoiseshell face and she jutted her skinny paw out to his nose. He and the cat were so in love. Sheeba wasn’t pretty, cross-eyed and insane looking, but she had green fire in her eyes and an Abyssinian face.
I mean, fuck his “anxiety”, Anita said.
The house moaned and settled. A car rushed past, music booming. Mark felt a bit of heat in his face.
You handled it fine, fine.
Anita looked at Mark and rolled her eyes. Gave him her “I’ll tell you all about it later” grin.
Mark looked out the living room window. Clouds were bunching in. There would be no sunset. By Sunday it was supposed to clear, perfect camping weather. This was exactly when he should have taken Anita camping. Now he’d be home with the march of time, the sweet cat and lots and lots of television. Maybe a bit of porn, maybe not. Probably not. But maybe.
They’d have fun “winging” it, Anita said, that was the beauty of it. Women didn’t care if they got lost. Maybe they’d just find some little place to eat on the coast nearby. Anita looked like a real birthday girl, her face all flushed.
The last time they tried camping was seven summers ago. Mark had insisted on driving Anita up to the high Sierra, the most remote site he could access legally where cars were allowed. Anita didn’t like the sound of it, preferred being somewhat near facilities. Mark liked it wild. Mark was not into pussyish camping.
Bears? she asked.
He snorted. Anita was quiet a few days before they went.
The morning they left was perfect weather. Mid-eighties. Driving up to a hardly known site at seven-thousand feet elevation, the slim, twisting roads at the end, the last two hours made her seasick. She asked him to pull over, vomited outside the car once.
Nearly dark when they got to the little site at the edge of the world, just enough time to set the tent up and get to sleep.
Fuck, Anita chirped, peeing behind a tree. My fucking period! Mark! Oh no! We can’t sleep outside! I’m bleeding!
Stress could do anything to her. One cycle would be four weeks, the next eleven.
We pack back up and we drive to a shitty hotel!
Anita? The road’s too dark! Mark militaristic, resolved and so angry. It was not her fault.
There ARE no bears here anyway! The signs are bullshit. Grrrr! Those days Mark won every argument.
After he fell asleep, Anita stayed awake imagining a man who cared for her tenderly, did not leave offer his wife to bears. She tried to release the fear in her shoulders, her hands, her toes. She used yoga techniques.
She quietly snuck out of the tent to pee, holding a flashlight tight, shining it everywhere. The trees bunched so she couldn’t see. Very close to the tent, she tentatively squatted and dribbled. It was hard to relax her muscles.
Mark’s voice froze her.
What the fuck? he said. You just peed inside our goddamn tent! He yelped. This was as scary to him as bears were to her.
Years later, they laughed -- telling the story to friends.
I thought it was rain at first, he’d say.
It always got laughs.
The next day, when Anita went out for her walk, Mark found Anita’s packing list in her sock drawer. He hated snooping but felt he didn’t have a choice. And this way he could count how many items she was planning to bring.
Journal, chocolate bars, snack items, organic bug spray, lavender lotion, cards, incense, massage oil, champagne (check the downstairs fridge), The Little Prince, binoculars, field guide to Northern California Birds.
A few things on the list surprised him, but only one hurt. He thought they were saving the champagne in the downstairs fridge for each other.